A white cop shoots and kills a black citizen. That story has played out so often and so vividly in real life recently that it might seem needless to dramatize it. Television has had no response over the past few years other than reaching into the past, as with last year’s two series about the life and crimes of O.J. Simpson. But TV is often at its sharpest when pivoting swiftly off the news. And that’s what makes Fox’s new series Shots Fired so intriguing.
The show puts forward a tragedy that, on the surface at least, is the inverse of the sort Americans are familiar with from the news: a black police officer (Tristan Wilds) in small-town North Carolina shoots and kills a white motorist, sparking an outcry. The maelstrom intensifies once footage surfaces of the officer declaring, in a loose and celebratory moment, that he has “a license to kill crackers.” Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James play an investigator and a Department of Justice lawyer seeking to determine culpability. Both are black, and James’ character, an ambitious tyro, is specifically chosen for the case because of his race to avoid further inflaming tensions.
So much for that. What Shots Fired gets right is how, in our current media and political climate, events as unambiguously tragic as the loss of life become Rorschach tests in which each spectator finds exactly the outcome that happens to cohere with what he or she already believed. The uncomplicated comes up for debate, and the muddled details of a complex case give rise to unearned certitude. Various characters, from the state’s conservative governor (Helen Hunt) to a preacher fluent in the language of the Black Lives Matter movement (Aisha Hinds), operate as though, by delivering their takes at increasing volume, they can turn a young man’s death into a chance to further their careers.
It’s a cynical show, but this cynicism feels earned. Shots Fired, created by film director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) and her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood, shares with Empire (which airs after it) a bold and audacious concept and a worn-down weariness that lets a bit of air out of the show’s spectacle. For all the inherent drama of its premise and for all its addiction to plot twists, Shots Fired derives its power from its characters. Take the frustration Lathan barely allows herself to acknowledge when dealing with a local white officer (Stephen Moyer). Her jaw sets, her eyes narrow. Hers isn’t a big performance–save moments dealing with her turbulent family life–but it carries loud and clear the psychic toll of having to grope for the truth in the midst of so many people who are so sure they already know it.
I’m naturally curious how the case will resolve itself, but Shots Fired is an achievement beyond its timely plot. Each episode finds a new avenue of inquiry, one that exposes another segment of society. It’s rare to see such a cross-section of life on TV, but Shots Fired, with empathy, grit and outrage, pulls it off. That the program airs on a network that made its name early on with one-dimensional crime shows Cops and America’s Most Wanted is a testament to how ambitious even broadcast television has become.
Shots Fired isn’t the only show trying to do something similar. I’d include ABC’s American Crime, whose majestic third season is taking on migrant labor, as well as last year’s The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX. All use short runs (Shots Fired is slated for 10 installments) to take big and ambitious swings. And all seem to be less interested in “solving” a story–bringing about a satisfying ending–than in diagnosing, in minute and particular detail, the American condition at this moment. It didn’t seem we needed a show about police violence, but with Shots Fired we may have ended up with the definitive one.
Shots Fired airs on Fox on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. E.T.
This appears in the April 03, 2017 issue of TIME.
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